Published in Tournament Trail (Lake Michigan 2010)
LAKE SUPERIOR – A TROUT LOVER’S BEST KEPT SECRET…By Ron Avery
The allure of dynamic salmon action in northern Lake Michigan and Lake Huron keeps me busy during the summer months chasing tournaments and pursuing “hot ports” trying to keep up with the best action. Living in Munising and being only a stones throw from Lake Superior means I’m often running off to other places and ignoring the great fishery in my own backyard. Last winter, while doing the Tournament Trail shows with Fred McDonald, conversations turned to the available fishery in Lake Superior. I related stories of catches of big lake trout and remote offshore reefs to Fred and he expressed that he’d love to try our fishery.
This past September brought several days of stable weather and as happens every fall, the big lakers begin converging on offshore reefs to feed on lake herring that were gathering for fall spawning. Following a couple of great days at the “big reef” northeast of Munising, I gave Fred a call to see if he was serious about wanting to catch some big lake trout. Everything worked out well and Fred was able to tie in a trip to Munising with other activities in Ontario. I made arrangements with my longtime friend and charter captain Mitch Mattson of Shelter Bay Charters to take Fred and his crew out to experience the Lake Superior action. Captain Mitch is the classic example that “still waters run deep”. While you almost have to pry conversation out of him, he has a vast knowledge of the local fishery derived from twenty-five plus years of leaving the same dock day after day and almost always returning with a great catch and a satisfied crew of clients. I’ve fished with Captain Mitch since the early nineteen-eighties and he is in my opinion the best that Lake Superior has to offer. Located about twenty miles west of Munising, Shelter Bay Charters maintains a private dock where Captain Mattson keeps his immaculately maintained twin engine twenty-eight foot Marinette. Typical of most modern charter operations the boat is well equipped with everything from radar to big screen fish finders and these tools are especially important when exploring seldom fished waters miles from the nearest land. Over the years I’ve been witness to many great catches of big Lake Superior trout and hoped that Fred and his crew would enjoy the opportunity to test this remarkable fishery.
Following a 4:30 am gathering at the Holiday Inn Express in Munising, we headed out to Shelter Bay and found everything ready and waiting for us at the dock. Our crew was comprised of myself, Fred, Captain George Peplinsky from Onekema, Captain Bob Guenthardt from Manistee, Judy from Manistee and of course our fearless captain Mitch Mattson. Our plan called for running some thirty plus miles northeast and the weather looked perfect for our offshore jaunt. Our destination, locally known as the “big reef” lies between Munising and Grand Marais, some twenty miles north of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The reef is about six miles wide and ten or twelve miles long and is located adjacent to the deepest waters of Lake Superior. On the actual reef the depth varies from less than sixty feet in spots to vast areas of one hundred to two hundred foot depths. As you might imagine, not all of this seventy square mile expanse is teaming with hungry trout and Captain Mitch’s years of experience and accumulated knowledge prove invaluable when it comes down to narrowing the search. Due to limited fishing pressure, this area offers exceptional fishing throughout the summer, highlighted by an influx of big returning spawners late in August and on into the fall. Approaching the reef in the early morning darkness I watched as the depth finder showed us ascending from over nine hundred feet of water and up onto the western edge of the reef and our target location in about one hundred twenty feet of water. We slowed to trolling speed and began setting lines in the half-light of a beautiful great lakes morning. I lowered the first downrigger with a Bugeye Fly rigged behind an eight inch Spin Doctor and when the cannonball found bottom turned my attention to setting another rod. Even though it was still too dark to see the counter on the rigger, within seconds the first rod began hammering with the first lake trout of the trip. This was the beginning of three plus hours of nearly nonstop action as rod after rod pounded to the beat of big Lake Superior lake trout. We fought and netted fish almost continuously and the lakers averaged well into the teens with several fish over twenty pounds. Coming up from the cold waters of Lake Superior these trout fought hard and heavy right to the boat and after keeping several fish we carefully released several more before calling it a day. (In the interest of releasing fish we equip our spoons and flies with single hooks so that most fish can be released with minimal handling and trauma.) In the final tally, Fred caught the biggest laker (although for a while we were not sure who caught who) and it pulled the scale to over twenty-four pounds. Fred’s big laker came on a rig that’s unique to our area and locally termed the “pump- rod”. It consists of an oversized reel loaded with single strand monel or stainless wire to which is attached a large single-hook spoon. Four hundred to six hundred feet of line is required to get the un-weighted spoon to bottom where the angler provides the action with a pumping motion. When you hook up on the pump-rod you can feel every move the fish makes because of the no-stretch nature of the wire and Fred had his hands full as the big laker fought doggedly all the way to the net. The fast and furious action at the reef kept us busy with just two downriggers most of the time. On the lower release we ran four inch Bugeye Flies with standard dodgers or plastic rotators and stacked a Skirt Chaser spoon on a four foot leader about eight to ten feet above the bottom release. Generally the catch rate is pretty even between the bottom fly and the stacked spoon. At times many fish are suspended higher in the water column and dipsy and surface lines provide plenty of action. I had bought along a couple of wire dipsy rods, however the action was so fast we never bothered with them.
While lake trout often take a backseat to salmon, they provide a steady and reliable fishery in Lake Superior and the potential is there for a trophy fish on every trip. Lake trout offer a great opportunity to introduce kids and lady anglers to great lakes fishing as they tend to provide a steady all-day bite and their bulldogging fighting style provides young anglers with fun manageable action. From my viewpoint it was great to see experienced Lake Michigan salmon captains excited about catching these big Lake Superior trout. It certainly reminded me that sometimes the best opportunities are in your own backyard! It is interesting to note that while we were experiencing this incredible fishing action, not another boat was in sight! This is not an uncommon occurrence on Lake Superior to have fantastic fishing and an area all to yourself, something you can only dream about on the lower Great Lakes.